Finding comfort when things are uncomfortable

Last Sunday morning our reading was from John 14- a passage that we’re most familiar with, unfortunately, from funerals. It’s very often used, because its so very poignant and appropriate to the question of ‘what is happening here?’ that we often face at those times. Yet the odd thing is, it comes before the death of Jesus- he is helping his friends to come to terms, in advance, with his death…

Image result for lean on someone

Yesterday I went significantly off script, various things came up and had come up- some tough things for us as churches alongside things to celebrate, but it was just one of those wonderful timings- The passage chosen for today, and which I’d put on the list several months ago, was just perfect for many of us in different ways. Just another one of those remarkable coincidences that seem to happen around God.

Anyway, here’s what I based my talk on- I think the audio should be on our website here

Jesus is the way to the Father… but that doesn’t make it comfortable…

Often folk like parts of the Gospel, or the idea of God, or the feeling of the Holy Spirit, but when all three come together it can be more challenging- we might like to have a pick’n’mix, but is that what is on offer?

I once came across the acronym USP- Unique Selling Point… its what makes something unique- its particularly to do with marketing and sales- what makes this product or service stand out…

In terms of faiths and philosophies, this passage expresses one of the really important USPs of the Christian faith- How we can relate to God…

All philosophies/belief structures and religions try to help give life meaning- to find a way to live.

Many have some spiritual aspect beyond the material and measurable

A significant number have an understanding of the universe that embodies spiritual power within a god or gods

Some believe that there is some kind of life after our death

A few believe that their god is interested in individuals- that some kind of relationship is possible

One, and only one to the best of my knowledge, claims that anyone who wishes to can have a parent/child relationship with their god, a relationship that is based on love, hope, and that out of that relationship they can act and represent their god…

Jesus says- no one comes to the Father except through me. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

This is one of those ‘did he really say that?’ moments- What Jesus said is either true or blasphemy-the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, made their decision and then acted on it- blasphemy- so they sought his death, and they killed Stephen for what he said…

Whilst the gospel is open to everyone, its not acceptable to everyone- there’s a point at which it can no longer be one of the things that we ‘like’… it is either so true and so important that it shapes our response to everything else, or its complete rubbish.

If Jesus is wrong about himself, if Stephen was wrong about Jesus, then the Christian faith is built upon the mistakes of a deluded man and his lying or hallucinating friends…

But the proof is in the pudding- when we humbly seek God, when we come in prayer for the needs of our community and seek forgiveness for the mess we’re making of our world… then we find that God responds- rarely in the way we might have preferred, or the timing we had in mind, but often in a way we could not have conceived of.

In prayer faith and faithfulness go hand in hand- do we believe in God’s ability and desire to act? And do we have the faithfulness to keep on pressing into that situation, praying for those people etc…

If we want to see people come to faith, we have to pray. If we don’t pray, why are we surprised when people don’t? Like a father, God knows what we need and yet delights in our asking for it…

Advertisements

What are the chances?

Last week has been a challenging week- in politics and in individuals lives. A good friend passed away just under a week ago, Donald Trump made his mark as president, other folk I know have had a tough time for all sorts of reasons… and yet.

And yet outside my front door the first shoots of spring flowers continue to creep up, the angle of the sun across the window moves day by day… the kids play (or fight) and the sun and rain come and go.

And in the midst of change, constancy, joy and struggle, God is still present. Some things fluctuate, others remain; some things seem unpredictable, while others are certain.

Image result for what are the chances

Last Sunday morning we heard the passage from John’s Gospel where Jesus attends a wedding and they run out of wine… a fairly well known passage, with lots of drama… and here’s what I said- of course, you can also listen here on our website.

What are the chances? A phrase we use when really, the chances are slim… but we live in a world where things are topsy turvy- a year ago, certainly two, ‘what are the chances of Donald Trump taking office as the President of the US?… but it’s happened. What are the chances of the Berlin Wall falling was a question oft asked in the 40yr history of East Germany, of the Iron Curtain tumbling, or of Man making it to the moon? when you look at things through the lens of statistics and data, the chances shrink down- it can drive you to stop and give up. What are the chances of winning a competition? So small, you may feel, that there’s no point in entering… and yet someone has to. My Godmother always used to win competitions, or so it seemed to me as a young boy- however the truth is that my Godmother always used to enter lots of competitions, particularly ones that were free to enter and included a tie breaker- you know, complete the sentence in 20 words… she understood that someone has to win, and that if you don’t enter, you definitely won’t win… it also helped that she had made her living as a writer… and so she had carriage clock after carriage clock, and so on.

You can’t win, unless you enter. If you don’t try, the chance of success is zero.

Jesus is at a wedding, and they run out of wine- what are the chances? Its not a good start for the married life of the family, it won’t be one of those funny stories that are remembered with a smile… its not like people will switch to beer, or go for the apple juice… this is it- no wine, no drink for the rest of the feast.

When we look at this passage we often focus on the final verse- this was the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs, that pointed towards who he was, and his disciples put their faith in him. This morning I want to look just a few verses earlier- where Mary speaks to the servants- ‘Do whatever he tells you’- now, if you were a waiter at a party in this situation, and someone told you a guest could sort things out, phew, what a relief… ok what do we do? Where are the barrels of wine you’ve got stashed somewhere? At this point we don’t know how much the servants knew about Jesus- did they know that he was anyone other than a normal guest? His ministry has barely started, but John has already testified that he is the Son of God, and others have heard and responded to his teaching… Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip & Nathanael, John (and most likely James) are with him… are the servants just obedient, or do they know something?

Whatever the case, their response is that they do as they’re told…

We’re not like that. We’re just not. If someone asks you to do something, you want to know what will happen… you considering the likelihood of it, the ripples and repercussions, and so on (well, you might)… We want to know what the result will be before we take action. When you’re in a shop and they ask for your email- is that so you can send me mailing offers? Is the question on my lips… Except for those times when we are already in motion, have already committed- times when you’re in the flow- sailing, fishing, singing, playing sport, dancing… often there’s a mix between knowledge, experience, intuition and gut feeling… ‘this will work’… but you have to commit before the result becomes apparent.  Several years ago someone tried to teach me to crew on a sailing boat with a trapeze- the basics are simple enough- it’s the application that is hard. And I got very wet, many times before I realised that you have to commit before the sail is full, otherwise its too late… The real pro will say it’s a step-wise thing between you and the sail- of filling and leaning… but done fast it looks as though the crew is leaping out of the boat… the feeling when you get it right, of the boat lifting out of the water and almost beginning to fly… but you have to act before the result is clear.

And because of their obedience, they witnessed, and were part of, a miracle. Their willingness to obey- their faith in the person giving them instructions, came before the miracle. Look again at the passage- they filled the jars with water, they drew some from them and took it to the master of the banquet… there’s no mention until that point that the water is anything but water… they acted in faith and obedience, but there was also a risk on their part. With faith there is always risk. Show me the risks you take and I’ll show you the faith you have. That faith can be misplaced, misguided, over-estimated- certainly when we put our faith in humans and human structures it is often the case, but if we never take those risks, then we never allow faith to grow, and those of us who have taken risks in faith, have acted on our faith in God, would say that he does not let us down.

Faith comes through action, yes, but it is shown in obedience. The servants had faith in Jesus, and they saw a miracle. If they had not been obedience and had faith, they would have witnessed nothing.

If we want to see our faith grow, then we must start with ourselves- yes, as we said last week… our own personal discipleship, our relationship with God, nurtured by our part in his Church and demonstrated in our live and our worship… but if we want to see our faith grow- if we want to see miracles of transformed lives around us, if we want our own lives to be transformed step by step, then the place to start is with our obedience to God. Sometimes that obedience will be a nudge to talk to someone… to call or visit when you could easily not. Sometimes it will be the mention of your faith, or that you pray in difficult times… sometimes it may be holding back when others around us are wading in with hard words against another… it may be speaking of what you believe when asked… it may be the practical helping hands reaching out in love…

He has shown us his love in this- that when we were still sinners God sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for us… and this is foolishness in the world, but is the wisdom and power of God- how can a dead man be the way to eternal life? But he is. And so we know this truth, that starts with a response to that love, and grows out of obedience- this relationship is not an intellectual assent or the outcome of an analysis (though it may include those things), but is the response of our hearts, that leads to our hands and feet.

You can’t see a miracle unless you act in faith. If you don’t, the chance is zero.

You may not see miracles every day, but you’ll see a whole lot more than none.

New year’s hope…

I hadn’t seen Rogue One until Wednesday, and just like my friends and family who were very good and didn’t spoil it for me, I won’t go and spoil anything for anyone who’s yet to go… just to say its really good fun. But I will say one thing… ‘we have hope.’ A great line in the midst of it all, and one that I’ve been holding out and holding onto recently, and will continue in for the foreseeable.

Image result for we have hope

On Sunday morning we had a quiet-ish New Year’s Day service- but we thought and reflected on hopes and resolutions, after reading from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, verses 10-18, and also the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church… I wish I’d written down exactly what I said, and it wasn’t even recorded, but here at least are the notes that I used… I may develop it further and post more after the weekend…

John testifies to this- that Jesus is the ‘one and only’- he’s not just someone amazing, but someone unique… he recognised who Jesus was- even though he could have said ‘he is my little cousin’… Recognising isn’t just seeing, its seeing and understanding/knowing… receiving and believing- not just with our heads, or just with our hearts, but with both, and with our feet… Letting this encourage us as well as challenge us…

Who are we in Christ, and so what?

John testified about Jesus- that he was the One and only… that he was the Word- the expression of God’s power in creation- just as physical forces such as heat, electrical energy and gravity only become apparent when they are expressed- when they are doing something, so God’s power was expressed and shown most clearly in Christ… Jesus was the visible  aspect of God. And John testified to that, John who had known Jesus all his life- his younger cousin, one of those who could have said ‘isn’t he just the carpenter’s son??’ was able to say ‘he is the one and only’ the one through whom we can become children of God…

And more than that…

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians- we are chosen by God…  adopted by God (as a slave set free might be adopted into a family)…

Marked by a seal… owned… but also under his care… under his banner, under his direction…

Cleansed by the blood… saved by his own action- not just saved, but saved by him taking our place, our sin… but ultimately not our punishment- because of our sins we were deserving of death and eternal separation from God… but Jesus had not sinned, and so death did not hold him, but through his action was itself defeated.

And so?? What shall we do… how shall we live? The grace of God is such that he continues to love us and welcomes us as his children, no matter whether we come to him daily, weekly or yearly. The grace of God is such that he is with us as blesses us whether we try to align our lives with his will in everything, or only so much…

Yes, God has chosen us, has known us, has spoken into our lives… the choice that is ours is how much we will listen, how much we will speak back to God, how much of our lives we will open to him…

Just as many people have New Years resolutions about their fitness, hobbies and other parts of their lives, maybe this is a good time to look at our spiritual lives and ask if they are all we’d wish them to be… if we’re happy with our knowledge of God’s love for us, if we feel that we do worship God with all our heart and soul, if we share our faith naturally with any who ask, that our prayer life is challenging and uplifting and that our times with God’s Word equip us for the day… Its easy to look at someone and compare ourselves- that person is holier than me, is more spirit-filled, a real worshipper, an evangelist… but we are all on our own journey of faith, and God’s desire for each of us, as individuals saved by the blood of Christ, sealed by the Spirit and called his children… his desire is for each of us to grow and flourish as ourselves, being transformed into the likeness of Christ- not of the person next to us, though they might be able to point us in the right direction… but Christ.

We can ask ourselves what Jesus would have said, done, bought, sung, given to etc, but the real part of it is where we then say, and so what will I say, do, buy, sing, and give to?

For myself I’m challenged by this, and I’m making a commitment to start a daily reading plan that will take me through the whole Bible this year; and to not only pray but worship God each day. My resolution is to know Christ more in all of my life, and to make him known more through every part of my life… and I fully expect to fail at times. That’s why I’m telling you- so you can encourage me and hold me to account. I want to ask you to help me grow this year. And we can all do the same for each other- You don’t need to stand up front and tell everyone what you’re doing, though at some points in the year it would be great to hear how God has been at work in people’s lives… but it is helpful for us each to be accountable in some way- you may like to write something down, or commit it to God, or tell a good friend or family member… it may be something you need a group around you for… this may be a good time for us to get another home group going…

we all know how telling someone your plans makes them more real… so this year, not just for a few weeks but throughout the year, let your faith become deeper and more real… and work with God to make that happen.

Be of good cheer, for Christmas is still here! Hope is always in season.

I spotted an article a few days ago that was someone’s Christmas Day message, written and posted up on their blog in advance- because they hoped that everyone would have too much to do on the day to be wasting  spending time reading a blog… well, for similar reasons but doing things the opposite way around here’s what I preached on Christmas Eve… on the passages from Isaiah chapter 9 and John’s Gospel chapter 1.  I did also preach on Christmas Day in the morning, but I thought I’d mix things up a bit… in order to fully appreciate this post, please read at 11.30pm after a hectic day, surrounded by candles and Christmas lights, with a few good friends and maybe having had a small glass of something-

Image result for glass of wine mince pie

I want to give us three short thoughts at this time, based on three images from our Bible readings- we have these same readings each year, and for each of us different parts will stand out, and have significance. They are also a part of the season- just as we sing carols, eat turkey, struggle with the tree, so we hear the familiar words read. But although they are something we return to each year, we need not become so overfamiliar with them that they lose their power. So may God speak to us all this Christmas season through his word, and through his Son Jesus Christ who’s birth we celebrate.

The passage from Isaiah has two wonderful images in it- ones that I find really helpful in tough times. And these are tough times. There is mention of the land of the shadow of death- Isaiah is writing at a time of unrest in his nation, when its uncertain when and where the next invasion will come from, who are their allies… the only certainty is that God is still faithful despite the people and their rulers turning away again and again. But for us that phrase, the shadow of death, is most often connected to Psalm 23, and the promise it contains- I will fear no evil, for though I walk in that valley I know that the Lord is with me… Isaiah would have known that same Psalm, and his words are of hope for the people around him at that time- a light is dawning… ultimately the darkness of night, the despair of war will come to an end…

The second image is one that Jesus spoke about hundreds of years later, and you’ll have heard me mention it before- the yoke. When Jesus talks about a yoke he is encouraging his followers- come to me all who are weary and burdened. I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you- you will find it easy and the burden light… as a well-fitted harness allows us to work hard and to carry heavier weights… this is in contrast to the bar on the shoulders of Isaiah’s people, the yoke of the invading armies which bears them down… God promises that one day that will be broken, and Jesus invites us to take up a new yoke that fits us and works with us. For its important to realise, to remember, that of the many things that Jesus came to do, freeing us from the need to work was not one of them.

The third image comes from the passage from John we just heard, and its one of encouragement and hope- There are many parts of this passage which I don’t fully understand, but that evoke something within me, but for today I want to look at the very final verse- The Word (which we’re just beginning to understand is John’s way of describing Jesus in this prologue to his Gospel) became flesh. That’s the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas- the indescribable power of God at work in creation entered into the world in a child… God who brings light in the darkness and an end to the night, came and made his dwelling among us- he came among us. No, more than that, he came and lived and worked and sweated among us… We can say that God knows us because God has lived among us- we know that God understands our fears and our work- that God’s promises to be with us in the valley of the shadow of death and to form for us a yoke that is easy… we know those promises are made by a God who has walked on this earth- who worked by the sweat of his brow, who cooked and cleaned and waited for the sunrise, who knew the loss of friends and was himself let down by those who followed him. This God made his dwelling amongst us, to know us.  Just as we know what it is to love somewhere in a picture, to love somewhere from a holiday, and to love somewhere you live… God knows that too. He has chosen to do this. And tonight we celebrate and remember that.

So may your tinsel be sparkly and your bubbles freshly poured, may your hearts be filled with love for your neighbour and compassion for the stranger, may you know the joy of the giver and the gift, may you know God’s love for you this year, in the midst of whatever you are living through- may you know God with you- Immanuel…

 

By now your turkey will have been demolished, the wrapping will be well and truly strewn, and you’ll be beginning to wonder what you should have got done before work starts, but I invite you to join with me and that radical disciple, the Archbishop of Canterbury in praying, speaking for and acting to help the homeless, the poor and the disadvantaged, wherever the may be, as we remember the birth of the homeless refugee Jesus.

Still remembering…

Last week we held various remembrance services and events- in a local care home, in a primary school, in both our churches on the 11th itself and on Sunday. We don’t glorify war, or at least I sincerely hope we don’t, but we focus on the loss and sacrifices made by many in the wars fought in the last 100 years, and those suffering today.

Image result for poppy

We used this introductory prayer, which a friend posted on Facebook…

Every week we gather in our church to worship God, and during the week we go out to serve him in our community. Through the year our feasts and festivals provide times when we invite others to draw closer to God as we celebrate the birth of Christ, his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today, however, is no feast day. It is not a celebration. It is a day when we, in our church, as part of our worship, serve our community simply by remembering all that has been suffered, all that has been lost, all that humanity has done and still does to itself. And we pray. We pray that the memories of war will one day fade into the past and that we will live in peace with our neighbours. But for now, we cannot forget, for that peace is but a dream and a hope that we have yet to bring to life.

Lest We Forget.  War is not just a distant memory. Our world is tragically far from being at peace. In the last week alone 95 civilians have died in Afghanistan. Many of those deaths, including women and children, caused by US air strikes. Lest we forget.
The siege of Aleppo continues. 250,000 civilians are desperately trying to survive bombs, starvation and disease. Food prices have soared, clean drinking water is hard to find, fighting continues and Russian bombs are still falling. Lest we forget that Syria is still at war. And the battle against ISIL continues in Iraq too. Lest we forget.
In the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, ongoing violence has led to over 1 million refugees fleeing the country. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Palestine and other nations where civil unrest, violence, man-made humanitarian crisis and rape affect countless civilians everyday. So yes, let’s remember those who fell serving our nation. Let’s remember those who gave their lives for us, and let’s remember those who continue to risk their lives in our armed forces. But lest we forget that war is far from a distant memory. Lest we forget that today many ordinary women, children and men, not too dissimilar to you or I, fear for their lives. Sadly, for them, war is very real today. Lest we forget them.

And here’s the talk I gave at one of our churches- which was to a mixed congregation including 40+ young people from our beavers, cubs, scouts & explorers…

If you were at the hut opening last Saturday you might have heard me mention the virtues that the scouting and our national flag stand for- gentleness, joy, peace, goodness, patience, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, and love; and we prayed that the young people and leaders involved with our village scout group would grow in them. In the Bible those parts of our character are called ‘fruit of the Spirit’- when someone is following God those things will be there, just like pears growing on pear trees, or grapes on a vine. The passage that Ellen and Emily just read comes from a place where Jesus makes just that comparison- if you’re following me, you’re like branches that are part of the vine- you will grow and fruit will grow on you- and then he goes on- that fruit will be love. And the ultimate demonstration of love for another person is being willing to give your life for them- as Jesus did for not only his followers and friends then, but through his death on the cross for all who would follow him and be known as his friends. Today we remember those who were willing to give their all for those they love, and we remember also those who’s lives were taken from them- the victims of bomb and gas and shell that target the innocent, the old and the young; those captured who died in concentration camps, those who died, on every side of conflict. We remember them, and we pray that we will learn to love peace.

When you’re at Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, or in any group pretty much- at home or in work, at church or playing sport, there are rules- the things that are written down or you’re told about and they tell you what to do- stand now, say this, try to kick the ball there… and there are values- the things that are often not written down- and they lead to ways of behaving too- good sportsmanship, looking out for the younger children, welcoming visitors… When I learned to climb years ago, the first thing we were taught were the rules- what to say to the person holding the rope, how to tie the knots that would keep you safe etc… but no one ever spent time telling me that you also checked out how other people were doing, gave any help needed, warned everyone about falling stones or other dangers… those were the things you just picked up, usually from someone looking out for you… gradually you don’t need anyone to remind you of the ‘obvious rules’- they just happen, and the other ones too- they become part of who you are. But at the start, you, me, we, we all need some instructions… and the easier they are to learn the better-

Jesus keeps it really simple for his disciples here- they’re one and the same- love each other. It’s the command that is at the heart of the Christian faith, and it’s the thing that all Christians are to do- love the people around you… By obeying that command we will be able to live the life that Jesus calls us to, and the fruit of that love will obvious to those around us, and, well, when you boil it down to that, when you really think about it, its not a difficult choice- Love- with kindness, care, consideration of others (which is way better than tolerance of others!), being happy for others etc… or ‘not-Love’- with well, whatever you get when there is no love… For most of us the difficulty comes in working out that it really is that simple (yes, it is), that there aren’t any catches (no, there aren’t) and in actually doing in our lives… that is the hard one. But you never get that one sorted unless you start. When I became a Christian, on an outdoors activity holiday at the age of 13, (in fact, it was because I loved hiking and climbing that I was there at all) it was really easy at first- I could manage praying, reading my Bible, learning and singing songs that praised God, being pretty good- and then I went home at the end of the week and I didn’t have a timetable, a team leader and a worship band living in my house- instead I had my mum and dad, my brother and my sister. And it was a lot harder. The Christian life is simple, but its not easy. A bit like climbing I guess- you just keep going up, and don’t fall off… It’s not just for kids, in fact you could say its not for kids- its too serious, but that would be like saying that you can’t learn to climb stairs or trees until you’re an adult… But life as a Christian has more meaning, more purpose and brings more joy than climbing or surfing or any other sport that I’ve done. It has risks- sure. But what doesn’t?

Bringing home the harvest

Too busy to blog!? How can this be, and yet it is- a summer of highs and lows, a few trips to the beach but also sorrow with friends and near ones suffering from health problems, a new colleague (hello Cathy!) and saying goodbye to another (adieu Richard!), and of course the beginning of the new academic year for the kids…

Anyway, in the midst of all these things the seasons roll on, both in the world and in the church- and as we begin to watch leaves fall from the trees, so we have harvest celebrations- yesterday we followed a first ever community harvest supper with our harvest celebration, and here’s what I said, based around the text from John’s Gospel, chapter 6, where Jesus has just crossed the lake, after the feeding of the 5000… and yes, I know this picture is of a French type of bread rather than an authentic Palestinian loaf, but it just looked tasty…

Image result for bread

We’re here to celebrate our harvest today… to say thank you to God for the food that has grown- who’s grown any crops this summer- any harvest? We’ve had fruit mostly- straws, blackberries and currants, raspberries and a few quinces, with some taters too, but for some the harvest is much more than a bit of fun for the kids. Our farmers- dairy, sheep, beef, poultry arable and the market gardeners, our fishermen, they work each day to bring in the harvest that the rest of us live on… someone somewhere grows the things that go into our favourite food. What’s your favourite food or drink? Where do the different things in it come from? I love chocolate spread on toast and a cup of tea- the chocolate comes from cocoa farms in Africa or South America, there is milk in there from cattle, the bread for my toast is made from wheat grown on farms maybe in Canada, or in England, and the tea may come from Kenya… all those people working, all those harvests, for my food.

But at the very bottom of it all, it all depends on the harvest. And as everyone who tries to grow crops or rear animals knows, you do your best, but you can’t control everything- the Bible puts it this way- I planted the seed, you watered the seed, but God grew the seed… Basically we have to trust that it will work- we all trust in our experience (what happened last time?), our brain (is this a good idea?), what others around us are doing (nobody else seems to be planting seeds at the moment…), and as Christians we trust in God and the Bible… and when we bring in the harvest, we can then say thank you to God.

Bread and butter… things that are just basic ‘essentials’…  in different parts of the world its different things, for some of us it might be pasta, in Asia it’d be rice… but for centuries bread was the basic first part of any meal… in terms of what the bread Jesus was talking about it looked more like pitta bread, or even crackers- pretty dry…

But the Bible isn’t just talking about food, is it? Jesus did feed people with real food, but Jesus says there’s more to it- don’t just work for ordinary food, that keeps you going for a day, but for something else- food that will keep you going forever… so what do have to do? What kind of work gets that sort of food? Believe in Jesus and you’ll see…

To believe in him means to accept who he is- the son of God, who brings judgement and forgiveness- judgement on those who’re puffed up with self-righteousness and look down on others, forgiveness for those who know they’re broken- Those who think their prize-winning leeks are just down to their work get their come-uppance, those who think they can’t grow a thing see a bumper crop. And Jesus says follow me- work for my father, and I’ll feed you- not just normal bread, not just a snack, but something amazing, and a proper amount- the word here isn’t nibble, but chew!

And here’s the crazy part- he’s just fed 5000 people on a kids picnic, he’s somehow got across a lake without people noticing (though his close friends had had the scary experience of seeing him walk on the water)… and they’re asking for more!! We’re very rarely satisfied with what we have- someone just the other day asked me why God doesn’t seem to be doing much, after all the excitement of the Old and New Testaments… the next morning I prayed for someone to be healed and they were, the fact that I was talking with this person was an answer to prayer, the difference being, I guess, that we’re not reading about it on the front pages… we also look at the Bible and think that these things are happening all over the place- we view the experiences of Moses as normal for the time and forget that no one else in the people of Israel was hearing from God like this… While Jesus was alive on earth there were many miracles, and in the time of the early church this continued- its like that time when you’re ‘in the zone’ whatever you’re talking about whether its playing music, surfing, solving a crossword etc… bang, bang, bang everything slots into place… Those things are as much to do with confidence as anything else… you’re warmed up, you’re excited, you’re confident, you’re relaxed, and you can perform beyond yourself.

If we trust in Jesus for the basics- the bread and butter, then he will lift us up and help us to go beyond what we can do by ourselves. We’re not worried because if it works, its to his credit, and if it doesn’t, its his responsibility… ours is to do our part- to believe in him. Whether he chooses to use miraculous signs or conversations at the bus stop, whether its manna from heaven or prayers over a pint- that is up to him.

This season, as we give thanks for what has been- the harvest of this year, we also prepare for the next season, we fertilise, we till the soil and get ready to sow seed.

Life after Easter, part 2

I had intended to post this at the start of the week, but ended up thinking and writing about volcanoes etc, but it still feels appropriate to post this. I have a question though, and its one I’d actually like a response to, if you don’t mind… In my experience of life within the Christian community, most of the learning alongside one another that we could call discipleship happens in small/medium sized groups. But given that a large part of life now happens in virtual communities- networks etc via social media rather than based in the physical geography of the place where we live… ‘what does discipleship (learning alongside others) look like in our lives today, and how can we use the format of blogs etc to help each other grow/learn together?’

Its a long question, and probably so badly worded that you don’t even know what it means… but I’m asking it because the original purpose of this blog was to document my own thinking and learning, in a way that is accessible to others…

Which is not a million miles away from the passage I preached on last week, and the original theme for this weeks post- doubts and faith as shown in the first encounters that the disciples, especially Thomas, have with the risen Jesus. How does faith work in a virtual community? How can a printed word on a blog convey the depth of meaning that a face-to-face discussion permits? Is it really dependent on font and a good set of pictures (not to mention the title and opening sentence?)

All important questions, and ones that I’m vexed by, but for this moment, here’s the gist of what I shared last time I preached- on the Sunday after Easter, based on chapter 21 of John’s Gospel…

Jesus has appeared to Mary, the disciples know the tomb is empty, but they’re still terrified… and then Jesus appears to them- his words echoing those used by God and by Angels throughout the experience of the Jewish people- fear not, or Peace be with you- they might remember back to their last evening with Jesus, when he had said ‘Peace I leave with you’. And he gave them the Holy Spirit. You can look at this as either a taster of Pentecost, or as proof that Christians need the Holy Spirit to come into us more than once, but its also the time when Jesus gives the disciples their first commission- to forgive others. Sometimes we get caught up with the busy life of our church, or the busyness of life in general. We might be excited by possibilities or frustrated by concerns, but this is what Jesus says- Peace be with you. Now, because God is in you, forgive others. Know peace, and bring peace.

But our reading doesn’t end there- Thomas is absent when Jesus appears to the others. And he, quite reasonably, has doubts. As, most likely, would you and I in his situation. But he doesn’t pull back from his friends- he doesn’t leave, he doesn’t run or betray them, and a week later he is there when Jesus joins them again. And Thomas responds to the clear call of Jesus. Many people in the world have spent so long with their fingers in their ears that they cannot hear the call of Jesus. They’ve filled their lives and their heads with noise, convincing themselves that its music and that they love it, but it isn’t, and they don’t. Jesus invites all who believe in him to know peace and to bring peace, and to those who do not, he offers the invitation to believe- to be blessed and to have life in his name- eternal life which starts now and is ‘to the full’.

So now what? The disciples, and Thomas, have responded to Jesus, and they now have their commission- their invitation to be involved with him in the redemption of the world- Jesus has died for the world, they are to go and spread the news, to tell of forgiveness, to bring healing and peace. So… if you find yourself in agreement with the disciples, or with Thomas, that Jesus is the Son of God- your Lord, then you are also called to join with them- we are to be peacebringers. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, praying and working for an end to conflicts near and far- on every scale. Jesus is risen means that my belief in his power is shown true, and the impact in my own life is that everything else follows from that- my work, my priorities of time, how I speak to and about others, and so my belief in him ripples out and has an impact on the lives of those around me- how I treat them, the things I will find myself agreeing with and drawing back from….

And though you may not think of yourself as a missionary or an evangelist, that is exactly what you are, and your faith is the result of someone sharing their faith with you- through words, actions, invitations, being a role model- you found out about the Christian faith and came to believe because of someone else, and we can all help others to do the same… we can help continue the work of the Father that Jesus commissioned his disciples to; and further out and out- the ripples of Jesus resurrection reach me and go on… So although the chocolate may be finished, lets pray that the truth of Easter will live on in our lives and reach into the lives of those around us…

 

Thoughts from a place of rest in John’s Gospel

…August is usually a time of holiday and rest for many people, and in churches a lot of programmes get put to one side for a few weeks.  However much of the life of our communities still goes on, even if we’re not formally organising things- meeting people in the street or a cafe still happens, there is still sickness and death, work still causes stress, babies are born and there are explosions of joy all around us- and none of it is planned.  This week I’ve been taking some holiday- actual holiday rather than going to a conference or pastoring at a festival, and so haven’t been online in the same way as usual. I won’t pretend I took a fast from the internet and technology as I’ve been checking the weather, looking up things for the family and playing more Nintendo than in the previous 3 months… and despite the English summer the family have managed a bike ride, a sailing trip, overnight camping (with a fire!) and a hike on the moor… and now I’m back to work today, prepping for tomorrow and things next week.

In the meantime, here’s the script for what I preached last Sunday morning- as usual the text won’t match the audio recording here but you can have fun playing spot the difference. This passage from the end of John chapter 6 comes after various miracles and in the midst of a long teaching discourse- it doesn’t feel as though Jesus is in a place of rest as he repeatedly deals with the comments and responses of his listeners…

In the passage from John’s Gospel Jesus lays out, using picture language, who he is-

He’s like the Manna that came from heaven- food God gave their ancestors to help them survive in the desert in the time of Moses… so he’s from God, to help… a gift that brings life

BUT he’s also different- you don’t actually eat him, and he doesn’t actually nourish you like bread… even though he says you really have to… he’s the source of our life, he’s also the route to that life… when you eat food and drink something, you are trusting it completely- you’re putting it into your body…

When we think about salvation and eternal life, when we try to explain it, we often use pictures of things like a great big wall between us and God or a gap between us and God, as a way of describing life without God- we’re alive, but we can’t reach God, and everything we know is poorer because of that fact.  If you’re ever talking to someone about what it means to be a Christian, one of the hardest things to explain, and for them to grasp, is that you see things differently… In our society we’re so used to moving pictures that we barely notice them- screens are so all-present that its really difficult for us to think back to what it must have been like for grown adults, in a sophisticated society, to see for the first time a picture that moved- at the first ‘movies’ people screamed and fainted when things moved towards and past the camera without coming through the screen and into the theatre- without any cgi necessary! They just didn’t understand what was in front of them.

It’s the same when we try to explain what it means to follow Jesus, and Jesus faced this difficulty too- (which should encourage us when we’re worrying about this!)… When we try to explain what Jesus does, we can end up describing him like a bridge, or a gate- a thing. But we need to remember he’s a person too. He was real. He taught people to trust him, to follow him, and they told others, and some of them wrote that down, and others talked about it, and so on… and I’m talking to you because someone told me about it… a person told me about what another person has done… it can get all complicated by pictures, or they can help us to get things, but ultimately its about a person, called Jesus, and our response to him. People follow Jesus because of other people, not because of an idea. Let me show you what that means- put your hand up if you first came to church because someone invited or brought you… ok, keep it up, put your hand up if you came to understand more about Jesus or became a Christian because someone talked to you… most people in the world who are part of a church or have a faith in Jesus are in that position because someone else told them- not because of a concept, or a book- somewhere along the line, it comes down to people, and those people who’ve helped us to come to faith are trying to live like Jesus…

If we want to know what he was like, we can look at the Bible which describes his actions and what he said, or we can look at people who say they are trying to follow him, we can ask them how they follow him and we can join in that endeavour. We might try, for a while, to follow some of his ideas, to be like him in certain ways, but that would be like someone who, to use the idea that Jesus uses in this passage, is invited to come to dinner – you have to hear the invitation, turn up, sit down and eat… otherwise you might have done a whole lot of things, but you haven’t been for dinner… unless you do all of those.  Jesus said to those who were listening to him, who’d enjoyed the miracles and maybe been at the amazing picnic, who’d heard him say things that challenged other people… to those people Jesus now said- you have got to trust me, completely. Even more than our ancestors trusted God in the desert. And people didn’t like that. They liked, just like we do, to be able to trust a little and to hold back a little, to have control. As children and grown-ups we want to have control of things- the remote control is a classic example in every home… but Jesus says, give me control, and here’s why-

Those who were hearing Jesus, and us today, have to face up to two truths-

  • Jesus definitely talks about what happens after we die. He talks about eternal life, he talks about being raised up to life… and he talks about that eternal life being completely dependent on having him at the centre of our lives- we live because of him. Jesus claims that he can be trusted to help us with what happens after we die.
  • Jesus definitely talks about what happens before we die. He talks about feeding the hungry and healing the sick, about loving our neighbour and forgiving our irritating siblings… he talks about our life today being connected to that eternal life, and that he wants to be involved in how we live every day of the week. Jesus claims that he can be trusted to help us with what happens straight after we leave this building.

Everything we’ve been hearing about the Kingdom of God over the last few months revolves around these two things- and weaves them together… our eternal life in the kingdom of God starts when we commit to follow Jesus, and as we love our neighbours and pray for the transformation of our community so we bring the kingdom of God into our homes and workplaces…

So- what about our kettle, our puppet and our rubbish sack? Well, each one of them has a purpose, that can only be fully seen when they are filled… the kettle with water, the puppet with a hand and the sack with rubbish… and when they’re not filled they’re pretty useless. A church has a purpose, Christians have a purpose, and we need to be filled with God’s love and the Holy Spirit. And when we are filled we’re able to keep on… being like Jesus in places where its hard, sharing God’s love with those who really don’t seem that interested, blessing the people around us even when they don’t seem to deserve it- because someone was like Jesus for us, someone shared God’s love with us, someone helped us to know God’s blessing…

Let’s pray.

Jesus goes to the gym… or does some baking- whichever you prefer!

… if you’re at all familiar with the Gospels you may be racking your brain now and wondering when Jesus does anything that could remotely be compared to going to the gym or doing some baking-

is it when he walks on water… nope

the hike up the mountain with his friends… nope

maybe the baking link is easier- the feeding of the 5,000? or the breaking of bread at the last supper or after his resurrection? Nope, nope and nope.

Ok- here’s the connection. Its when he prays.

When Jesus prays for his disciples, as recounted in John’s Gospel, chapter 17, it reminded me of both those things, and here’s why… BTW this is a paraphrase and adaptation of what I said yesterday morning in church…

Jesus prays for his disciples that they’d be protected- that God would protect them. He doesn’t pray that they would stay safe and sound, or be kept from dangerous places, but that God would be alongside them and protect them in those situations… if you want to make bread, or bake cakes that taste wonderful, then you have got to turn the oven up hot and go into the kitchen. And most chefs I know have a few burn marks on their arms, but they also use the protection to hand- aprons, towels, oven gloves… those things that are available and intended to protect you in that place. Oven gloves are useless when typing blogs or tying shoelaces, but essential when removing hot items from the oven.

God’s protection over the disciples, and over Christians today, is not for when we’re sitting in a comfy safe place, but when we’re in a place of risk and danger. Jesus prays that God would protect his followers because he expects them to be in those situations.

Ok, and the gym? Well, Jesus also prays that his followers would be ‘sanctified’- made holy. And that’s a process, an ongoing process. Its one which is best done with a guide and a goal, with some advice and gradually… rather like signing up for membership of a gym, only this one is a spiritual gym. When you first go to a gym its all a bit scary looking and everyone seems more confident and fitter than you, but with the advice of the person who took you along, or the fitness coach there you can find the best starting place for you and work from that… Spiritually we’re all at different starting points- whether we’re struggling to know how to pray, can’t easily engage in worship through singing unless we already know a particular song, just don’t ‘get’ reading the Bible as a way to hear from God or find ourselves caught up all too easily in bad habits of our past…

It takes effort to move off the spiritual couch…we need to actually put on the spiritual oven gloves… we need encouragement and maybe a bit of coaching… and here’s Jesus, on the night before his arrest and execution, and his highest priorities in prayer are- oven gloves and a coaching session so that his disciples can flourish rather than wither, can grow in strength and become all that he sees in them.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I know which I prefer. See you there?

Knowing who you’re following…learning to listen

Some notes from yesterday morning- thinking about the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd that we read in John’s Gospel, chapter 10…

First up, would Jesus’ listeners have understood him when he started to talking about sheepfolds and shepherds? Probably a lot more than we would, and certainly more than most of the population of the UK. People also knew how sheep behaved, though the sheep of first century Palestine may have had more similarities to goats or the hardy mountain breeds than the white fluffy image we have in our heads. Outside of the few major cities people would have been familiar with the sight of shepherds leading their flocks across the hills, or driving them to markets. The image of a shepherd was furthermore a strong cultural image for the people of Israel- the words of Psalm 23 portray God as a shepherd. And in their history there were a few famous shepherds too… but how many of these Biblical shepherds do you know? 3 clues for each one- raise your hand when you think you’ve guessed it…

Offered the Lord the best part of his flock and the Lord was pleased; his brother was very jealous; a son of Adam and Eve (Answer: Abel)

Looked after flocks for his in-laws; his father-in-law was called Jethro; he saw a burning bush (Moses)

Made and agreement with his uncle about spotty sheep; had disagreements with his twin; wrestled with an angel of God (Jacob/Israel)

Had 7 brothers; played the harp; killed a giant

Kept sheep near Tekoa during the reign of King Uzziah; told people to turn back to God; had visions of a plumb line and a basket of fruit (Amos)

Eldest of a large family; threw his younger brother in a pit; didn’t know his other brothers then sold him (Reuben)

In the passage we’re looking at today, Jesus identifies with 2 important characteristics of a good shepherd- firstly that of being faithful- a willingness to protect the sheep- the good shepherd lays down his life… to protect their sheep from wild animals, thieves or the elements. In Luke’s Gospel he taught of a shepherd who would go to great lengths to find and rescue a lost sheep- far beyond what would be expected of a hired hand… Jesus taught about this, and referred to it again and again… we read this with the benefit of hindsight and understand that he was talking about his death, but his original hearers wouldn’t have fully grasped this.

The second characteristic is of knowing his sheep, and being known by them…  Jesus knows us, and understands us… he calls to us. He wants his followers to know his voice. We get to know his voice by spending time listening to his words- by praying, by reading the Bible, by worshipping… if you remember the old logo for the HMV music shops- ‘his master’s voice’, it was of a dog sitting and listening to a gramophone player- the implication that it was listening and paying attention to his masters voice. If we’re praying, and think we may be hearing God in some way- in a picture or idea, if we’re unsure we can discern whether we’re hearing Jesus’ voice or our own thoughts by holding them alongside an example we know- where his words are written down… And Jesus is saying ‘follow me’… as a shepherd he knows better than us where we should go… he will lead us, guide us, protect us, save us… but we have to follow him.

And where does Jesus call us to follow him? Into the world, as disciples, taking the message of hope and good news- the Gospel of the Son of God who laid his life down. We need to remember that this is a message of salvation rather than improvement- remembering it in how it fits within our lives and how we portray it to others. Jesus calls us all- every one of us has a vocation, a calling to our lives. That word is often used only to describe ‘professional’ or ‘licenced’ Christian ministry, or sometimes for certain jobs such as healthcare, but actually all Christians have a calling- to follow Jesus where he is leading us… it may be a place of work, or a ministry within the church, it may be to share the Good News with a particular group of people, it may be to another country. As we discern and respond to that calling, so we will be called further… to keep following him, and as we learn to hear his voice, and experience life with him by our side, we realise that there is no greater calling than to simply be with him- to be a Christian wherever we are; living out the Christian life of prayer, witness and worship as best we can. That’s not something we grow out of or retire from, but something to which we are all, always growing.

He is the good shepherd, he calls us on. He laid down his life for us, no one took it from him. As we follow his voice, he leads us in good ways to good pastures, and as we journey, we know him the more.

I’m really interested in hearing other people’s stories about how they have come to know Jesus/have grown to know Jesus more/know Jesus in their lives… or whatever language you prefer in your tradition! I asked people in the church where i was speaking to send me an email or write me a note about their own experiences- we’ll see what i get, but i’d love to hear from anyone else about your own experience of knowing Jesus as guide or saviour, friend or teacher…